- Size: caterpillars grow to 2” long; butterflies with 3 ½-4” wingspans.
- Color: caterpillars with black, white, and yellow stripes; butterflies have orange and black wings with white dots and black bodies with white dots.
- Habitat: fields with milkweed plants (for caterpillars) and other wildflowers like goldenrods.
- Where and when to observe: found from mid-June through fall especially around coastal areas such as Riis Park, Breezy Point, Fort Tilden, Great Kills, and Jones Beach State Park.
Quick – think of a butterfly!
I could be wrong, but I’d bet the first one that came to mind has orange and black wings with white dots, and a black body also decorated with white dots, right?
The word “butterfly” usually conjures an immediate thought of one specific species – the Monarch. And there’s good reason as they are not only beautiful, but also a fascinating insect with a 2,000 mile migration to its winter home in Mexico.
Found flying in our region from summer through fall as they journey south, the Monarch Butterfly begins life as a tiny egg laid on the leaf of a milkweed plant. Three to five days later, a caterpillar emerges. It has black, white, and yellow bands along its body and gets to work devouring leaves of milkweed plants (like Butterflyweed) – its sole food source. Plus, since milkweed has a chemical that makes the caterpillar distasteful, it is protected from predators.
A young caterpillar is just 1/8” long but in 2-3 weeks it measures about 2” long and is ready for the next stage in life. The caterpillar spins itself into a cocoon called a chrysalis, where it transforms into the adult butterfly, emerging in approximately two weeks.
A newly emerged butterfly remains still at first, working to expand its wings by slowly pumping liquid into the veins that reach a 3 ½ – 4” wingspan. Soon after, it is off and fluttering to nearby plants to feed on nectar extracted with its long tongue called a proboscis.
Monarchs begin to fly south in September, with 60 million arriving in Mexico two months later. Here they spend the winter huddled on fir trees and living off fat reserves. Activity resumes in March – butterflies mate and females lay eggs for the generation that begins the trip northward. Two more generations continue the migration, reaching New York around mid-June. These butterflies lay eggs for the fourth and final generation that repeats the southbound journey in fall.
Look for Monarch Butterflies beginning in summer to fall, especially in areas that have milkweeds or goldenrods. Coastal areas are particularly good such as Riis Park, Fort Tilden, Breezy Point, Great Kills, and Jones Beach State Park.
- Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City by Leslie Day, published 2007 by Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America by Eric R. Eaton and Kenn Kaufman, published 2007 by Houghton Mifflin.
- Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson, 1997, Three Rivers Press.
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